In the great, imaginary hierarchy of Nintendo mascots, little, pink Kirby occupies a lower tier, below the likes of “Zelda’s” Link, “Metroid’s” Samus Aran and, of course, Mario and Donkey Kong. But don’t let the hungry puffball’s fifth or sixth-banana status keep you from trying “Kirby’s Epic Yarn,” a charming, kid-friendly game whose artistic vision holds its own against that of any title released this year.
The storybook-style narrative in “Epic Yarn” (rated E, $50 on Wii) begins with its hero being swallowed up by a sorcerer’s magical sock. He quickly finds himself dumped out into Patch Land, a stitched-together world of cloth and buttons, thread and yarn. Upon being transported, Kirby’s turned into yarn himself, a development that strips him of traditional moves from past games, such as being able to inhale and swallow enemies.
Now a piece of string, Kirby gains new abilities, such as the use of a whip that can unravel yarn-based bad guys. He can also use the whip to roll adversaries into balls, which can be thrown at other bad guys or smashable cloth blocks. While Kirby can no longer fly, other moves include the ability to transform into a weight, parachute or car.
After arriving in Patch Land, the little pink guy joins forces with Prince Fluff, a blue Kirby lookalike who wears a crown and serves as the second player’s character if the game is played cooperatively. Together, Kirby and Prince Fluff traverse, depending on your counting method, seven or eight two-dimensional worlds that scroll like the levels in an old-school Mario game.
These worlds include plenty of platform-jumping standbys. Fire, ice, desert, water and snow levels make expected appearances, along with a couple of less traditional worlds, such as one based around desserts.
Within each world, “Epic Yarn” finds plenty of room to innovate. Levels in Hot Land vary from the expected lava/volcano play spaces to one called Dino Land, which features no fireballs and instead has Kirby hopping on the heads and backs of prehistoric beasts, or hitching to the buttons of pterodactyls as he swings, Tarzan-style from one end of a gap to the other.
Furthermore, boiling down levels into such reductive descriptions as “the fire world” does the game a disservice because throughout its entirety, “Epic Yarn” continually finds new ways to amuse and delight. Much of this charm is generated by transformation patches that temporarily turn Kirby into a number of different vehicles, such as a flying saucer, missile-firing tank or fire engine.
In one portion of Hot Land, you’ll use the fire engine to douse blazes that prevent Kirby’s progression in the level. Another late-game portion has Kirby transforming into a spaceship and blasting enemies out of the sky in a sequence reminiscent of classic shoot-‘em-up arcade games like “Galaga.”
Though the transformations sound complex, “Epic Yarn” is a breeze to control. Players hold the Wii remote sideways, like a controller from the eight-bit Nintendo era. You only have to deal with the directional pad and two buttons. When each transformation takes place, a little panel gives players a refresher course on that vehicle’s controls.
For avid gamers, the only potential knocks against “Epic Yarn” are its relatively short length and low difficulty level. It’s impossible for Kirby to “die” as being touched by an enemy or falling into a chasm simply results in the spillage of beads, the game’s collectible currency. This design decision helps ensure that just about anyone can finish “Epic Yarn,” but players wanting to unlock everything the game has to offer will spend a bit more time replaying levels to get as many gold medals as possible. Generally, I didn’t have to replay levels more than once to win gold, awarded for making it to the end of a stage with an ample supply of beads. A superior performance in boss battles awards the opportunity to play additional, optional stages which, along with optional speed-based challenges, helps add a couple of hours to “Epic Yarn’s” five- to seven-hour length.
But to get hung up on how long it takes to finish “Epic Yarn” is to miss the point of a dark horse game of the year contender. While it’s true pretty much anybody can “beat” the latest Kirby game, the journey is the thing here. There are so many winsome, unexpected wrinkles the game throws at you that if you play from start to finish and don’t crack at least a dozen smiles, you’re probably rotten on the inside.
If you have a kid who can play “Epic Yarn” with you, the game’s a no-brainer purchase. But even if you’re a jaded, childless older player, Kirby’s latest adventure is the perfect change of pace from this fall’s generally gritty, blockbuster fare.